Church structures facilitated abuse of power

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Luke Dineen

Diarmuid Martin’s recent liturgy in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral was an extraordinary display of Christian humility and compassion towards victims of clerical sex abuse. In acknowledging that clerics put the ‘institutional Church before the safety of children’ and actively covered up ‘crimes of abuse’, he has hopefully ended the church’s culture of indifference and denial for its culpability for the sexual abuse of children. Furthermore, the passion, honesty and clarity he provided was very genuine and admirable. So too was the bemusement he expressed at how the Catholic Church could behave in such a sinful way.

But is this conduct more explicable than we care to admit? That the zeitgeist of the church has always been a lust for power and domination? Shouldn’t we admit that with all manmade institutions of power, particularly ones that operate within the walls of an accountability exclusion zone, corruption, abuse of power and self-interest are inevitable? So why should this one be any different?

These questions are all the more pertinent when we consider the enormous influence the Catholic Church still wields in areas as crucial to the wellbeing of Irish society as public health and education. Rarely did the church as an institution flourish as in post independence Ireland, yet rarely did it contribute so little to the finer qualities of the Christian faith. The uniquely Irish devotion to it facilitated a legitimisation for the impoverishment of spirit and the barrenness of mind that characterised the post independence bourgeoisie, touting for moral respectability. While the church still claimed to be the defender of the poor in spirit.

The fact that we venerate their lavish displays of papal splendour and a cult of authority instead of recoiling at such symbols of abusive power represents a triumph of humanity’s darker capacities, rather than an appropriate method to advance the beautifully moral message of Jesus. Indeed the very manner in which church hierarchs expect to be addressed is repugnant to many as they infer servitude on the part of the supplicant, not any kind of mutual Christian respect.

Nor can we forget that this is an institution whose conceit brought such devastation and suffering to so many during the course of its own history. It has championed the degradation of women, viciously attacked so many politically progressive movements and gave such an indefatigable energy to ruthlessly crushing dissent (‘heresy’) in ways that subsequently became bywords for barbarity.

The Catholic Church in every respect represents the continuation of archaic Medieval monarchy. It is an institution that supplanted the autocratic model of the Roman Empire. Presided over by a supreme pontiff, unaccountable, unchallengeable, and infused with the ‘authority’ of Christ (which, incidentally, took them centuries to discover). Its stratified structures of complete patriarchy, strict obedience, deep hierarchy and utter subservience to the arbitrary will of one’s superior are justified in of the name of Jesus, whose will this church supposedly embodies.

Central to the idea of the church was that it alone had a monopoly of ethicality, and was thus the divine vehicle for the salvation of humankind, salvation from the fires of hell for our innate sinfulness. As an obvious consequence, protecting its good reputation and power superseded all other human concerns of civil society. Even something as horrific as the sexual abuse of children.

About three years ago I learned of a monstrous event in human history. The genocide of the Cathars 802 years ago. The Cathars were a religious sect that arose in the 12th century in the south of France, and soon became a mass movement. They believed that humans went through a series of incarnations before becoming a pure spirit, which represented the presence of the God of love, as described by Jesus. The inaptly named Pope Innocent III viewed them as a severe threat to papal supremacy and declared a crusade against the Cathars (his fellow Christians), known as the Albigensian Crusade. Innocent promised land and wealth to knights who would join the assault, and thousands did. The crusaders murdered entire populations, men, women and children in towns across the Languedoc in late July 1209, and seized the riches for themselves. This massacre was not a spontaneous occurrence. It had been planned meticulously by a group involving Innocent.

I cite this historical crime not to suggest that anything the church is engaged in now compares at all to it, much less that the Catholic religion which the institutional church has so often betrayed is anything other than a faith based on Christian love and justice. Rather, what I wish to convey is that the conviction that the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church alone is the sole instrument for the salvation of humanity from eternal damnation (coupled with its authoritarian nature) is the pernicious cover for the terrible abuses of power that Diarmuid Martin so rightly condemns.


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